Radiohead: Not so revolutionary after all?

Last week, Radiohead dropped a bomb on the music business by announcing that its entire new album In Rainbows would be available for download from the Internet, and that fans would be able to pay anywhere from zero to whatever they wanted for the music. This was quite rightly viewed by many (including yours truly) as a revolutionary move by the band to sidestep the entire traditional music industry structure and go direct to the fans.

What hasn’t gotten quite as much attention since the announcement is the news that Radiohead plans to release In Rainbows through traditional music channels as well, via a record deal with a traditional label — and possibly even EMI, the label that the band belonged to before its contract ran out after Hail to the Thief was released in 2003. Radiohead’s management told a British radio programme that they planned to arrange such a deal to get the wider distribution that major labels can provide. They said:

“The band [are] incredibly proud of this record and feel that it deserves to be brought into the mass marketplace. That’s why we need a record company who have that infrastructure to deliver the CD.”

And EMI — one of the only major labels that has started distributing music in digital form without DRM controls — sounds like it is the closest to shifting the way it thinks about the industry, and therefore probably the best suited to do a deal with the band (although the financier who now owns the company seems to think that “digitalisation” is a word, which is unfortunate).

My first reaction to the news that Radiohead was still planning to go through the regular channels was to think that the whole download announcement was just a big publicity stunt. At the same time, however, I think that it is evidence that the balance of power is shifting. Granted, Radiohead likely has plenty of pull anyway — but the realization that the band could just as easily avoid the label route has to have gotten the attention of record-industry execs.

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About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

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